The daughter and co-heiress of the 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, Lady Elizabeth Talbot (1581-1651) married Henry Grey, Lord Ruthin (died 1639) in 1601; he succeeded his father as 8th Earl of Kent in September 1623.
Paul van Somer was a Netherlandish painter, who worked in Amsterdam, Leiden, the Hague and Brussels before settling in London by December 1616. Although his working life in England was to last only five years, he worked, from the outset, for the most elite court patrons. In 1617 he portrayed James I's queen, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) at full-length in hunting attire (Royal Collection), a work in which he reinvented her visual image. The following year he did the same for the image of James I himself, depicting him in line with mainstream Continental fashion, with the royal regalia on a table at his side (Royal Collection). On 13 May 1619 van Somer attended the Queen's funeral as her 'picture maker'; less than two years later he was dead himself.
The present painting is known to have belonged to Charles I (1600-49) the son of James and Anne, as it appears in the inventory of his collection made in about 1639. Lady Grey had been a favoured attendant of Anne of Denmark and had walked in her funeral procession as a 'Countess Assistante'. The fact that she is attired in black, including wearing black jewellery in the form of expensive egg-shaped jet beads, suggests that this portrait may relate to the mourning period after the Queen's death. Under her heart, she wears a jewel - possibly a closed portrait-miniature case - with the crowned monogram 'AR' - standing for the Latin 'Anna Regina' (meaning 'Anne the Queen'). A similar miniature case, containing the Queen's portrait and presumably given by her to another of her attendants, Lady Anne Livingston, survives in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The signet ring threaded on a black ribbon round Lady Kent's right wrist may also have a memorialising significance. It is engraved with the image of a breed of dog known as a 'talbot' - evidently a punning reference to her own maiden surname.
Her extremely low decolletage is a fashion paralleled in other Jacobean female portraits, including those of Queen Anne herself. Such exposure, even for ladies of mature years, was evidently considered entirely acceptable, although presumably confined to an elite court circle only.
Tate Gallery Report, 1960-1, pp.30-2
Aileen Ribeiro, The Female Face, London, 1987, pp.12-13, reproduced in colour
Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790, 5th edition, London and New Haven 1994, pp.51-3